Community groups call for San Diego Unified superintendent search to be more transparent than the last one

San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten is President Joe Biden's choice to be U.S. deputy education secretary.
San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Cindy Marten is President Joe Biden’s choice to be U.S. deputy education secretary. The district faces the task of hiring a new superintendent.

In 2013, the San Diego Unified School District board chose Cindy Marten as the new superintendent behind closed doors, hours after then-Superintendent Bill Kowba told the board that he would retire and before the general public knew the board needed a new superintendent.

Community members said the move violated open meeting laws and denied them the chance to give input.

Almost eight years later, the superintendent position is up for grabs once more as Marten is expected to be officially named U.S. deputy education secretary next month, pending Senate confirmation.

Now a coalition of community groups is telling the school board that it should not choose the next superintendent the same way Marten was chosen.

The coalition includes the Association of African American Educators, ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, Parents for Quality Education, the San Diego chapter of the Black American Political Association of California, the San Diego Urban League, the NAACP San Diego branch, the Chicano Federation and parent group Reopen SDUSD.

“Like many school districts, San Diego Unified has faced challenges during the pandemic resulting in educational and emotional challenges for students, their families, their communities and educators,” the coalition said in a statement.

“Poor and inconsistent communication with these stakeholders during the pandemic has created concerns that their voices will not be included in the selection process to replace Superintendent Cindy Marten.”

Board President Richard Barrera said he agrees that the superintendent search process should be open and transparent.

The board did not conduct an open search last time because it was already unanimously convinced that Marten, who was then principal at Central Elementary in City Heights, was the best choice for the position, Barrera said.

“I felt that it would’ve frankly been dishonest to go through a big, open, engaging community process when we already knew who we wanted,” Barrera said.

Barrera, who has served on the board since 2008, said he thinks it is time now to go through a more open, transparent process because he doesn’t have any candidate in mind whom he is committed to and he suspects his fellow board members don’t either.

The board is expected to announce details about the search for Marten’s replacement after its Feb. 2 meeting and has promised that this superintendent search will be transparent and will heavily involve the community.

While the board searches, Area Superintendent Lamont Jackson will serve as interim superintendent for the rest of 2021, the district announced earlier this month.

LaShae Sharp-Collins, president of the Association of African American Educators, said community groups should have a say in the criteria for the new superintendent and in recommending finalists and that there should be public forums with the top candidates.

“The community needs to be involved from the beginning to the end,” Sharp-Collins said.

Barrera said he personally would want the board to appoint a search committee that includes people representing several groups, such as parents, students, teachers, staff members, community organizations, the business community, labor groups and potentially city and county government.

He also said he would want the committee to hold multiple town hall meetings and broadcast interviews with the finalists.

Instead of a board-appointed committee, the community groups say they want a national search conducted by an outside firm.

Sharp-Collins said such a process would yield more quality candidates than a search conducted by a board-appointed committee, which she said may end up limiting the search to largely local candidates.

Barrera said he personally prefers not to have an external firm conduct the search because he thinks the district won’t have any trouble getting candidates to apply. He also said he thinks a search by an external firm would be conducted less publicly than one by a board-appointed committee.

“I think it is important that anybody who applies for the job needs to know that this is going to be an open, public process and you are going to need to not only let the community know that you’re interested in the job, but the community’s going to have to have a chance to get to know you,” Barrera said.

Members of the community group coalition said they need a transparent search process because they think the lack of one in 2013 led to the appointment of a superintendent who has not done enough for Black and Latino students and other historically disadvantaged groups.

While many local and state policy and education leaders have praised Marten’s work on equity, some parents and other community members have been more critical of her record.

“We want to ensure we don’t have another superintendent that fails to address the academic achievement and opportunity gaps that have been plaguing our communities of color,” said Tom Keliinoi, president of Parents for Quality Education.

Barrera said equity will be the most important factor in the superintendent search.

“We could debate all day long about Cindy’s record, but the district’s focus on equity has been very clear and has been our absolute priority for over a decade before Cindy became superintendent,” Barrera said. “San Diego Unified will hire a superintendent whose No. 1 priority is moving us further toward equity for all of our students. There’s no doubt in my mind that that will happen.”


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